Month: March 2014

Worst Best Picture: Is Platoon Better or Worse Than Crash?

1987_iconic_picture_platoon

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1986 winner Platoon. Is it better than Crash?

If someone asked you to see a movie about the evils of war and the dual nature of man with regard to good and evil, you might be on board. If someone told you that movie had Charlie Sheen at the center, you would need to ask what year it was.

Charlie Sheen’s career is a curious one. A few years back people were going to Charlie Sheen live shows just to see what he’d do. He went crazy in public and everyone gawked at it because mental stability is razor-thin. Everyone is afraid to lose their mind. Everyone is fascinated to watch it happen to someone that, apparently, no one really wants to help.

Tiger blood and whatever aside, Platoon is Charlie Sheen in Oliver Stone’s manifesto about how war is hell. He joins a huge cast that also includes Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, John C. McGinley, Keith David, and Tom Berenger all yelling at each other about how best to handle being left in Vietnam with no clear purpose. It’s certainly about Vietnam, but it’s also about how adversity changes a person. The titular platoon is divided into two camps. One follows Dafoe’s by-the-book approach of not murdering and raping people, the other sides with the crazed Berenger and his apparent plan to save the village by destroying it.

This may sound odd, but there’s an awful lot of actual war in this war movie. People who watch Full Metal Jacket for the first time are often surprised that the entirety of the scenes and quotes they know all happen in the first half hour or so. All of Full Metal Jacket‘s cultural cache happens before they even get to the damn war. Not so with Platoon. Oliver Stone makes a deliberate choice to keep the camera on the violence. Over and over, the cast is thrust into the jungle to get shot at again. It’s a two hour movie and at least a full hour of it takes place with gunfire in the background.

The effect is very real: War is everywhere, and when you are at war, doubly so. It makes for an uneasy viewing that constantly drills home what Oliver Stone wanted to say: Do not ever romanticize this. He’s said that he made the movie because he felt that too often audiences were only presented with positive and heroic portrayals of war.

Platoon is a brutal movie. When McGinley’s character saves himself during a firefight by hiding under dead bodies, it is both frightening and sad. The Vietnam War is never an easy subject to discuss in American history, but the general consensus seems to be that it was at the very least a damned shame. Platoon is essential viewing to understand the American experience, and whatever you think of Oliver Stone’s personal politics, this movie’s only agenda is tough to debate.

The Best Part: For sheer memorability, the scene where McGinley covers himself with a body to survive stands out. The firefights are so arresting that even 30 years later they still create a sense of anxiety and dread. Forrest Gump‘s ‘Nam is very similar, but it doesn’t feel like it matters. This feels real — too real — and the movie hums because it scares and depresses the viewer.

The Worst Part: Berenger’s character is a brutal villain. War movies often only show one side of a conflict, so it can be tough to discern a “villain” in the classic sense. In this movie, it’s definitely him. He tries to sow dissent through violence and threats. He reacts to someone saying that he should cool down by burning down a town. He’s the violence in all of us wrapped up into one scarred up guy. If there’s an issue with him, it’s that he’s never really explained. He’s left as this uber-asshole, just a guy who wants chaos for chaos’ sake. Those people assuredly exist, but he could be deeper with some motive.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It can be tempting to just say that Platoon is good and Crash is not, but it’s about the whyPlatoon stirs the pot by forcing Americans to watch one of their greatest nightmares on camera. Crash stirs the pot by demanding that present day is worse than we admit. War and racism are both complicated and both bad, but we’re on board for that. The challenge is to find something new to say, and Platoon does. The “good” guys in Platoon are still burning down a town and at war. They’re still racists and violent lunatics — they’re just less so than their counterparts. Platoon introduces shades of grey into what war does to a person. Crash suggests that shades of grey are just what we pretend exist because we won’t open our eyes. Both are negative messages, but one is without hope, and that’s just not interesting. It’s not the pessimism that dooms Crash, it’s how damn happy to be “right” about its message that does.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Oscars.org

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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Doctor Who, Why It’s Generally Amazing, and Why It Currently Sucks

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

If you don’t know a whole lot about Doctor Who, that’s fine. If you don’t know in a vague way what Doctor Who is, what the hell, man? Maybe not so much in America, but it is a cultural mainstay in Great Britain. What’s the longest-running, most culturally impactful US show you can think of? The Simpsons? The Simpsons has been around forever. It’s still going, and when it started, I was three. When Doctor Who started, my dad was 15. It has been around for over five decades. How the hell do you keep the same feel for the same show for five decades? One answer: regeneration. The main character, the Doctor, is a member of an alien race: the Time Lords. When a Time Lord is grievously injured, he or she regenerates – remaking every cell in their body to escape death, but changing their physical features and even personality traits. Whenever an actor decides to leave, the Doctor dies, regenerates, and comes back slightly different. The Time Lords won their name by mastering time travel, but they are non-interventionist. The Doctor is not. He stole a TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions in Space, their time travel devices) from them, and now he pops up in any space, any time, and helps or makes life complicated for whomever he finds there.

The TARDIS: the most advanced spacecraft you will ever see

The primary factor that makes Doctor Who so great is its unbelievable breadth. Not only has it occupied a massive cultural niche for the last 50 years, but the show itself can take its audience to any time or place imaginable. If the writers want to take us to Pompeii the day before the big event, boom, we’re there. If they want to take us to see how humanity is doing in the year 50 bajillion, we’re there. The degree of latitude and writer’s license that exist on this show is huge, and that gives space for the story to be correspondingly huge. The variety afforded by this model enables some truly amazing episodes. The writers can cover an ancient Egyptian ghost story, a far-future murder mystery, a WWII action adventure, or any other combination of events that occurs to them. The Doctor has met Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Elizabeth the First, Abraham Lincoln, and Vincent Van Gogh, among others.

Another main part of the show’s greatness is the tone of optimism that runs throughout the whole thing. No matter how high the stakes or how dire the consequences, the Doctor himself always believes the best in people, and that the best possible outcome is always achievable. He does not give up, and no matter how cynical a bastard you are, that’s nice to see on television. The Doctor himself is another reason that Doctor Who is such a cultural powerhouse. Competence is something we respect and enjoy to see, and the Doctor has competence in spades. He has intimate knowledge of a limitless number of arcane scientific fields, can completely outmaneuver enemies from stupider races, and manically spouts technobabble with the best of them.

He’s also terrifying. At the beginning of the current incarnation of the show (they took a 10-year break; the version I’m discussing started in 2005), there’s been some huge intergalactic war, and the Doctor is the sole survivor. He’s also the one that killed everyone else to end the war. His general demeanor is silly and happy-go-lucky, but that demeanor is built on the cold, solid granite of someone who will commit genocide if it makes the universe a better place. This major conflict within the personality of the Doctor is a joy to see, and this Darth Vader/Mr. Rogers clash within the character pops up throughout the series. The Doctor likes to eat fish and chips, go on vacation, and be generally nonthreatening, but he also brings down governments and single-handedly decimates armies. The goofiness wrapped around a razor-blade interior is compelling to watch because it’s not just silliness and badassery but who the Doctor fundamentally is covered with a thin veneer of who he desperately wishes he were. The longing and piteousness in that situation give the Doctor an appealing complexity.

He finds your lack of desire to be his neighbor disturbing

Speaking of characters, this show’s treatment of characters is part of what made it great. The Doctor runs about collecting companions, people who travel with him on his TARDIS. The first one for the new series is Rose Tyler. Rose leads a life where she works in a shop all day, goes home, and watches tellie. This is the entirety of her life. Then she is chased by store mannequins come to life, meets the Doctor, and her life changes.

This is how they meet. Notice the Darth Vader/Mr. Rogers dichotomy – all the proper pleasantries followed by him brandishing a detonator he’s about to use and saying “Run for your life!”

Not only does the show do a good job building a full life for Rose outside of the TARDIS – we meet a jealous boyfriend, we see a nice but importunate mother, we learn that her father died when she was just a little girl – but it does a good job having Rose change and develop herself. She starts out as an alright but ultimately boring sort, but the TARDIS changes people. Imagine living life as a normal person when all of a sudden a box falls out of the sky, a man pops out, and that man says that he can take you whenever and wherever you’ve ever wanted to go. One, that would be hard to say no to, and two, being exposed to all of time and space broadens people’s horizons and enables a lot of growth and transformation. Rose becomes more knowledgeable, more caring, and more competent. Her relationship with the Doctor is the ultimate platonic-kinda-but-not-really relationship there is and one of the most adorable things I’ve seen on television. Through her experiences and that relationship, she changes from a normal woman to someone who can hold her own in battles that range through time and space, at one point and temporarily (mild spoiler) basically becoming the goddess of time. To give an idea of the trust and respect the Doctor has for her talent, here he is, facing off against space Satan:

Notice again the conflict at the Doctor’s core – angry and ballsy enough to mouth off to Satan himself, gushy and fuzzy enough to talk about how great his girl is.

Most of his other companions follow this same pattern, but none were ever better than Rose. They all share the main trait that meeting the Doctor enables them to tap their potential and improve themselves while helping the Doctor.

Rose Tyler, ladies and gentlemen

I mention how well fleshed-out and dynamic Rose is because it stands in stark contrast to what has been happening on the show lately. I still watch it because for four seasons it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen, but season seven was un-fucking-watchable. What went wrong, Andrew? You said everything was amazing! Well, it was. Was. The biggest problem with the new season and its betrayal of its own past is its treatment of any character not the Doctor. The show now exists not as a vehicle to explore relationships and change and humanity, but a vehicle to aggrandize the Doctor. The companions from previous seasons all have families, pasts, and people who love them. They all change, grow, and cause you to at least care whether they live or die. Season seven’s companion, Clara, has a great mystery about her, but that mystery is all that defines her. That’s it. “Ooh look at me I’m a companion and I’m mysterious,” says Clara. There, now you know almost literally everything I know about this companion. She doesn’t grow, she doesn’t change, and I want you to show me the bastard who cares whether she lives or dies, because I need to yell at him in a bar about things that are good versus things that are bad and why he’s on the wrong side of history. The emptiness and fluff of this character is not only bad television, it’s a slap to the face when you compare it to how well this show used to do supporting characters.

Pictured: Clara Oswald, newest companion. Or Nancy Drew. I don’t give a shit.

In addition, the plot writing has taken an absolute nosedive. The dialogue can still be snappy and appealing, there can still be some enjoyable set pieces, but writing quality has been steadily falling for seasons five and six, and it plummeted for season seven. The main problem is the growing lack of respect for internal consistency. Internal consistency is a tenet of science fiction (really all fiction) that emphasizes the importance of making sure the universe you are setting up makes sense to itself. Whatever rules you set up for that universe, you’ve got to follow them or everything falls apart. In the first few seasons, the Whoniverse was internally consistent. Can’t change time or cross your own timeline without terrifying consequences? Check, we won’t change time or cross our own timelines. Looks like we’ll have to find some other way to sort our problems. In the earlier seasons, time travel either served as a device to get the cast from problem to problem, or was a problem to be fixed itself. Even in spots where the show bent the rules, the writers supplied a plausible explanation that tied it into the rules that already existed, thus maintaining internal consistency. Now, time travel is the solution to almost everything, and no one gives a shit about crossing their own timeline, which was a universe-ending blunder in the first few seasons. Almost every single episode in the seventh season builds up all these complex problems for the Doctor, stacking conflict on top of terror on top of oh-no-how-will-we-ever-succeed, but invariably one stupid thing that is completely unrelated to the episode’s buildup will solve everything. Often, if you ask the Doctor why he won, the response would be “because Time,” but following is a list of other dumbass plot devices that got the Doctor out of jams: a special leaf from Clara’s childhood that stopped the bad guys with happy memories, a flying motorcycle the Doctor uses to get inside a skyscraper with impenetrable security (it was not mentioned before or after that he had a flying motorcycle), a mother’s love being strong enough to protect everyone, and the Doctor literally just screaming who he was and watching everyone run away in fear. It’s like the opposite of Chekhov’s gun: If you see absolutely nothing in the first act, it will appear in the third act, completely change the rules of the game, and make the play terrible. The show is crap now because, with lazy storytelling in each episode, the Doctor is never really in danger and never truly seems to solve anything for himself; his victory is just handed to him because the episode is almost over.

The lazy writing corrupts more than single episodes. Doctor Who usually follows the standard pattern story arc: a bunch of stories, loosely related, paving the way to a big final conflict. Season seven has no arc. It consisted of a bunch of slapped-together one-and-done shows, and I remember being livid when, going into the season finale, I realized that while a Big Bad and a mystery at the end of the season had been hinted at, nothing had been done in previous episodes to actually elucidate or build towards it. This, along with the new, empty, insufferable companion, have made this show awful.

This gif probably accounts for at least 4% of Tumblr’s total bandwidth and is also how I feel about the current state of this show.

You should still watch this. After season four, do what you want, but you have got to watch part of this. It’s a cultural beast, the time travel / space travel / science fiction elements of it make the only limitation for the show the writer’s imagination, and it’s got one of the most compelling characters ever created. This show has won a level of dedication from me that almost no other form of art or storytelling matches. Even after three years of this show ripping my heart out each time its writers couldn’t be bothered to actually resolve a conflict, I still love it so much that if you asked me which show I liked better, this or something like Breaking Bad or The Wire, I’d have to think about it. If the writers get less lazy and decide that character development and cohesive plots actually matter again, this show will get real good real fast. And here’s the good news: with the cultural staying power it has in Britain and the handy regeneration device around to replace retiring actors, this show will probably outlive you and me. That’s plenty of time for it to return to glory.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.

Image sources: BBC America, Washington Post

Noah is about Vegetarianism, Religion, and the Nature of Man: Should You See It?

noah

Brent Hopkins

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Noah?

I watched Noah a week ago in theaters and I must say I was completely caught off-guard by what I witnessed. To start, I am not a particularly religious person but I have beliefs and I took the smallest bit of them and my fuzzy knowledge of Old Testament scripture with my girlfriend (who is more Buddhist than anything) to the theaters to see the latest Bible film.

Right from the opening scenes you know that this is not going to be a bright and sunny telling. There is the hunting of an animal for its meat and the immediate comeuppance from Noah (Russell Crowe) showing that hunting animals and consuming them is bad for your health because he will murder punch you into seeing his side of the story. This gives a slightly Gladiator-esque feel to the movie, but instead of fighting Rome, Crowe is now pitted against the fallen of humanity. This is an even more epic scale and the film does a good job of portraying this.

The film is relatively visceral, as much of the Old Testament is, but there are definitely a lot of modern day problems brought up by director Darren Aronofsky. The one that kind of turned me off the most was the heavy handed message that eating animals and general lack of conservation is the stem of humanity losing itself. One of the first things you hear Noah tell his sons is why the humans are hunting animals for meat. He tells them it is because humans are ignorant and think that the meat gives them strength. That was such an in-your-face advertisement for vegetarianism that I felt like I got hit with a Whole Foods ad. This theme is the main thread that continues throughout the film and each time it rears its head I just wanted to scream “I GET IT! ANIMALS ARE SACRED.”

Noah has always been a story about a boat big enough to hold two of every animal. The logistics of this have always been fascinating to me and now that technology and computer graphics have advanced enough to maybe handle this I was intrigued to see how Noah would build this thing and keep all the animals from massacring one another. The world Noah lives in is completely barren of vegetation and animals for the most part. Humans have ravaged the land and nothing is really left. Noah finds a workaround for this by planting a seed that gives him plenty of treesources (get it) to build his Ark. Even still, this would be an impossible task for just Noah and his family (three male children, his wife, and a girl they saved) so Noah gets more physical labor help from The Watchers. These guys are stone-covered golems who have been punished for going against The Creator’s (“God” is never used in the entire film) wishes by being bound to terra firma as opposed to being allowed to fly freely as they once could. They were mostly slaughtered by the evil humans but the remaining ones decide to help Noah as he is the only person they have met to have contact with God in a very long time.

The Ark is built over the course of a few months and the way the animals are dealt with is a huge letdown. They just quietly come in groups of two, they don’t really fight, they don’t really do anything, they just go inside then get put to sleep with a concoction Noah’s wife creates. This is a bit of a copout and I felt like it ignored probably the biggest characters in the Noah story.

Now this would be a pretty boring movie if there was no conflict and well, this is a blockbuster film, so revenue must be made. The conflict comes from Cain, the other side of the human coin. He is the king of the humans and when he notices that all this forest has sprung forth and all this meat is traveling to one location he takes the right amount of interest in the situation and has to see what the deal is. Cain is a savage man who has no qualms with killing animals, humans, and everything in between. He feels The Creator abandoned humans so he is just making do with what he has left. Noah says the people aren’t welcome on the Ark and Cain lays down the gauntlet by saying “when this deluge comes to end humanity I am going to come and take this Ark from you and The Watchers and we will eat all of the animals.” You know he will keep his word and the story gets its big action conflict.

This would have made for a good film but this take pushes the envelope in a great way by focusing on Noah as a human. The Creator has said that animals are the innocent on Earth so Noah takes this extremely literally and makes the jump that he must kill himself and the rest of his family must die as well. You watch the deconstruction of a righteous man over the entire course of the film and the pressure that is placed on a family when going against a higher being. Noah becomes a person you grow to somewhat despise over the film, and by the time he and his family are on the Ark it feels less like a new beginning for the world and more like a suspense thriller. You know something is going to have to give but you don’t know how Darren Aronofsky is going to take the story.

Should You See It? 

I would have to say yes. This is not the best film I have ever seen, but I will say it raised a lot of questions for me and really makes you think about the story of a human dealing with a superhuman situation. You never think about all the people that Noah has to knowingly leave to perish or how a person would have to deal with unclear directions from The Creator. I have had more conversations with people about this film than many others I have seen over the years, and it has something for religious and non-religious persons alike. I can see why this caused controversy among a bunch of different factions because it is not a movie to please one group or the other, it is merely an adaptation of a story that does have some open-endedness to it.

Image source: Daily Mail

Worst Best Picture: Is A Man for All Seasons Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: the guardian

image source: the guardian

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1966 winner A Man for All Seasons. Is it better than Crash?

Country music is an unbeatable source for stories about divorce. Tammy Wynette sang the classically-sad “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” in 1968, a song about the then-revolutionary idea that women also experience sadness in a divorce.

It must have been going around, because just two years earlier two films obsessed with divorce were nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Man for All Seasons. The former is the better movie. Woolf? is a rager of a film, the story of four people’s lives finally going over the falls of madness and sadness at the same time over one night of debauchery and delusion. The latter, A Man for All Seasons, is the quiet story of a man sticking to his principles up until the point that they send him to his death.

A Man for All Seasons is the story of the end of Sir Thomas More, the man who refused to sanction Henry VIII’s divorce… mostly because it involved Henry VIII usurping the Pope and creating a new religion for the entire nation. More stands his ground as the last reasonable man of God in his world, and he’s pretty much right. His only crime is refusing to give the King what he demands, but in his day that’s about the worst you could do.

It’s the story of principles and the lack thereof. More is played as a saint right up until the end. His antagonists scream at him and threaten him and call him an idiot. More takes it all in stride — though he does imply that they’re all going to Hell, so, well, maybe let’s put “stride” in quotes — but he really handles it well until the court scene at the end. He refuses to give a slimy guy named Richard Rich a job in his court over and over because he sees him as disloyal and opportunistic. When Rich perjures himself to send More to death and More loses his damned mind on him, it’s really a popcorn moment in a pretty dry drama about principles and honesty. It’s weird, but it’s awesome.

I’m just going to come out and say that this movie did not blow me away at first. It feels capital-I Important, for sure, but it doesn’t really get going until the second act. The closing court scene is rousing, but there’s a ton of setup to get there. Everyone is very serious — I mean, the King’s killing folks — but even in the context it gets to be a bit much.

Paul Scofield, though! I’ll admit to not being up on my Paul Scofield knowledge, but he’s apparently in rarefied air: He died one letter short of the EGOT. His performance in this movie is amazing. He earns the hell out of his Best Actor award in 1966 for his portrayal of Sir Thomas More, and beats Richard Burton, Alan Arkin, Michael Caine, and Steve McQueen for the honor. If you aren’t going to invest the full two hours to watch Scofield’s fall, you should do some YouTubing for the courtroom scene at the end at the very least. He shines extremely brightly in a movie that’s not necessarily one for the ages.

The Best Part: A crazy, drunk-off-his-ass looking Orson Welles! He plays Cardinal Wolsey, the brief boss of Sir Thomas More. I say brief because he has two scenes: He shows up and yells at More and then gets hauled off to die immediately in prison. The movie’s cast may be largely unknown to the average modern viewer, but it’s impossible to miss Orson Welles. He looks enormous in Cardinal robes and it’s impossible to imagine that he lived for two more decades after this performance. It’s amazing.

The Worst Part: The setup of the story of Sir Thomas More’s undoing is an interesting part of English history, but it’s not a very fascinating thing to watch. This thing wakes up like it doesn’t want to go to school in the morning. It’s almost 40% of the way into the movie before anything “happens” in a sense.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s absolutely not an unremarkable movie, but it feels like an odd choice for Best Picture. Crash seems a ridiculous choice. It seems absurd that it would even be thought of in a positive light in the first place, much less the most positive light. A Man for All Seasons maintains all of the gravitas that won it Best Picture all those years ago, but it doesn’t feel essential. It does feel good, though, so it’s several magnitudes better than Crash.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Oscars.org

Symbols and Sociopaths: Hannibal Season 2, Episode 4

nbchan

Jonathan May

This episode was really just all over the place. We start out in Will’s head as he teaches Abigail Hobbs to fish; the terrible fishing metaphors fly hard and fast (“the one that got away” could also work as a Katy Perry song title). By incorporating Abigail into his interior space, we’re able to see more clearly Will’s goal in this trial: to lure out the beast in Hannibal and expose it to the light. So Will succumbs to the greedy desire of the hospital psychiatric director for exclusive “therapy” to regain his memories. We’ll see if this pays off in the long run.

But then we segue into an apiarist serial killer who freely admits to her crimes when confronted (albeit in a controlled insane way) halfway through the episode. The swiftness with which this was handled confused me and left me wanting more.

So what did we linger on the most? We see laid out, in brutal coldness, Bella’s acceptance of death as a cure to living. Perhaps the only echo in this episode is the image of the honeycomb, Bella’s body honeycombed with cancer. Just a thought. The whole slow dance toward death Jack must acknowledge is lightened by the novel plot introduction of medical marijuana. As Jack and Bella smoke purple kush, we feel imminently the frailty of even this small moment of levity. And, as the plot gods would have it, happiness comes at great cost.

My prediction that Dr. Beverly Katz would discover Hannibal for what he was came to startling life at the episode’s end. I was riveted in my seat as she gaped in shock at something. I am so, so thankful we did not see what she saw. It’s always more horrible what we imagine ourselves. But this unfortunate interaction could lead to the demise of my favorite character.

All to say, Friday could not come sooner. I’ve been trolling the Hannibal Tumblr and Facebook page, like a dutiful #fannibal, so we’ll see if the story gods repay. If they’re out there, listening, I have but one humble request: better music. The whole episode was plagued with shrieking strings and obvious, eerie auditory leitmotifs. Let’s lay off a little moving forward.

My predictions for this week’s episode: Alas, Dr. Katz is held by Hannibal, but hopefully not killed. Will Graham moves forward with his new therapy and fills in his missing narrative. Bella lingers on; Jack feels it necessary to stay beside her, when Dr. Katz needs him most. And where the hell is Cynthia Nixon?

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Hannibal airs Friday nights on NBC. You can read our piece about the previous episode here.

Image source: NBC

Video Games as Literature and The Ending a Different Kind of Story: BioShock Infinite’s Final Episode

2013-11-17_00007

Alex Russell

[Editor’s note: There are very, very light BioShock and BioShock Infinite spoilers in this. Nothing specific is given away, but if you’re the sort of person that wouldn’t want to know who won the war in Gone with the Wind, be warned.]

Albert Einstein said “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” His point is that whatever weapons evolve out of the nuclear age are going to be so destructive that they will reset the entirety of technology. His point is that whatever comes next will be huge, because what’s here is already huge.

He meant that in a bad way, of course, but it opens up discussions of the meaning of “progress” in the development of weapons. There’s a similar discussion (though one of much less importance) about “art” with regard to progress. Were the best stories told in oral tradition? Is typing a novel rather than physically writing it on paper so removed from the page that it can never be as good? Is digital visual art still art?

It’s a big thing to say something “isn’t art.” Robert Ebert famously said that video games weren’t, and that made a lot of people angry. A younger version of myself was disappointed that such a great man could make such a statement. Now, I suppose that art is subjective. People came at a film genius and demanded he love something else just like film. What did anyone expect? He can’t be entirely blamed for that one.

Art aside (that’s another debate), video games are definitely stories. The story may be as simple as saving the Princess (capital P, because you know the one) or it may be as complex as the dawn of an empire (or an Age of some, say). They can be well-told or not, good-looking or not, and positive or not. They are as complex — though definitely not on a percentage basis, don’t misunderstand me — as any other way to tell a story, and one of the largest, most ambitious tales to tell in video games just came to an end.

With BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea‘s second-and-final episode’s release yesterday, the story of Rapture and Columbia and of Booker and Elizabeth is over. Ken Levine, the director behind the BioShock series, shut down his studio after the downloadable episode was finished. He released nearly all of the staff that made the games and effectively relinquished control of the BioShock brand. It’s rare in the world of games that a story is done,  but this one is done.

If you didn’t play the games, I can offer a simple summary. Very light spoilers follow, and you’re free to read as ‘thpoilers’ in your head, if you like. In the 1950s world of BioShock, an Ayn Rand-inspired businessman named Andrew Ryan sets up an undersea city called Rapture and establishes himself as a larger-than-life icon of the new paradise for people who are tired of government and welfare. He exiles the first charismatic figure to rise up against him and sinks a portion of his underwater city to throw rebels and dissidents into a watery prison. In BioShock Infinite (the third game, but the second that is really necessary for the main story) a religious zealot named Father Comstock rules Columbia, a city in the clouds above Rapture. Columbia is designed as a neo-America for the early 1900s, including “racial purity” among its supposedly vaunted ideals.

The settings provide unique storytelling opportunities, but they are designed as mirrors on purpose. In both, people asked for and received isolation. In both, people believed that a fresh start in a new community would allow for a better society – and in both they were wrong.

The final episode is a five-to-six hour (depending on how slowly you go) final attempt to bind the two settings together. Infinite — an extremely popular choice for “Game of the Year” from much of the gaming journalism world — ended with an important part of Columbia sinking from the sky into Rapture. Now that the final episode is over, it’s fascinating to see just how much of this was all planned when BioShock originally debuted seven years ago. This was meant to be a continuous story, and the final episode takes you all the way back to the start of BioShock.

There is a ton to praise about these games, but what people keep saying — when they say anything negative — is that too much combat breaks up the story. People want to get to the next big reveal. I touched on this when I talked about Gone Home, a game that is entirely story, earlier this year. The final episode dumps combat almost entirely and rewards you for ducking through the shadows. Since it’s played in flashback, this offers your character a lot of chances to sit in air ducts and shadows and watch the previously untold parts of the story you already know.

This style of narrative is as important as what’s being said, and the stealthy run-through-the-shadows effect really supports it well. In the previous game you played as a brash private eye who ran into situations guns blazing. Now you’re forced into a more agile role — the wily, brilliant, and sassy Elizabeth — and the gameplay adjusts to match.

It’s certainly sacrilege to a lot of people, but one of the best “books” I’ve “read” this year is one I played with a controller in my hand. That certainly won’t be true forever — the game came out yesterday, and the effect of recently-consumed culture is obviously inflated — but it’s more than a rebuttal to the opinion of Roger Ebert at this point. Arguing if games are a narrative isn’t the argument anymore – it’s if, in some ways, they’re the best one we’ve got.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Wiki

Hate-Watching the Girls Season Finale

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Jonathan May

Jonathan May’s original explanation and defense of hate-watching Girls can be found here. This post covers only the season finale, which aired on Sunday.

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post erroneously identified this in one instance as the series finale of Girls. It is actually the season finale. We apologize for the wishful thinking.] 

What can I say? All’s well that ends well, and end well this doesn’t. (Pro tip: Never make a Girls/Shakespeare comparison). I spent most of this disaster of an episode hating Marnie for hurting Shoshanna; I do admit that if Shoshanna hadn’t pushed Ray away, it might not have happened at all, but such is the wanton heart. I find myself thinking about the show purely in terms of the romantic engagements, which hearkens back to my theory that the show is in no way (and under no uncertain terms) a comedy, but rather a romance. But for a show all about girls, there is certainly a lot of attachment to boys.

This episode attempts to wrap up a season’s worth of false starts and prolonged miseries. Adam’s sister reappears, and tada!—she’s living with Laird, with whom she’s expecting a child. Then she promptly disappears from the plot. (Situation: resolved?) Marnie, no shocker, feels it necessary to reveal to Shoshanna that she and Ray slept together.Why she feels it necessary is beyond me. In a Western world of privilege, Marnie feels it’s her duty to unburden herself of guilt, rather than keep silent. She does this not for Shoshanna, but for herself, using the guise of truth as a way to assuage her own loneliness by bringing Shoshanna into co-misery. So, my real shocker for this episode was hating Marnie more than Hannah.

Which brings us to Hannah, unavoidably so. Her acceptance to Iowa was a trite and tawdry move on the part of the plot; Hannah lives in a world of limitless opportunity as a writer, even though we never see her writing. Comparisons to Sex and the City noted, Carrie’s main grace as the central protagonist was that the narration began and normally ended with her writing, her articles, because she was a writer. We never see any articulation or actualization of Hannah’s writing, just its end results. Where are the hard hours alone? The time spent putting together an application for a tough-to-get-into program like Iowa? We see none of that, and we’re the worse for it. Missing those moments cheapens the idea of work behind creative writing. We see Adam practicing constantly, Ray reading, Marnie singing, but we never see Hannah writing.

All in all, the episode closes with dramatic flourish typical of an inflated season of histrionics, with Hannah clutching her torn acceptance to Iowa like a sad, frumpy Vivien Leigh. Jessa’s arc throughout the season was the most interesting, and her courage in helping the photographer to end her life (and then save it) was the strongest point of the episode. Jessa makes it clear that at least some of the Girls aren’t just living for themselves.

My predictions for next season: We open in media res after something (?) happens to Hannah at Iowa, forcing a return to Brooklyn. Jessa has finally found herself. Adam is wildly successful. Marnie does something better with her hair. Shoshanna leaves the drama behind.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Image source: Grantland

Anne Carson’s Red Doc> – An Artwork on the Edge of Sense

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Austin Duck

In Read This or Kill Yourself we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.

Where you headed /
bit further along the road /
why

you running / oh I often do
/ are you

meeting someone / yes
/ who / a stranger / how
will

you recognize each other /
in a strange way / strange

to both of you / that

would have been a
problem / it’s no longer a
problem / no

(p. 119)

 

To call Anne Carson’s work, in general, very difficult would probably be an understatement. I mean, it’s not inaccessible nor is it written in cryptograms (though, for a very interesting interpretation of conceptual, cryptographic poetry, check this out), but it’s definitely the kind of work that, if you found yourself on an overseas flight—or stuck on a very long journey—and all you had was Red Doc>, you might be a little upset. But you shouldn’t be.

Red Doc> is a kind of follow-up to Carson’s 1998 title Autobiography of Red, a myth-in-novel-in-verse (thing) retelling Herakles’ tenth labor, to kill Geryon, from a different perspective, instead exploring Geryon’s coming of age, coming to terms with his homosexual love for his pal Herakles, and his artistry as a photographer. What may be most vital to understanding about Autobiography of Red, for my purposes anyway, is that it makes sense. It’s clearly more committed to behaving like a novel-in-verse, a transmission of plot with moments of elevation. It’s coming of age, at times moving, and well reviewed by The New York Times Book Review. Red Doc>, on the other hand, is not. In fact, why don’t you take a minute to peruse other reviews of this book. Seriously. I’ll wait.

Whether you chose to or not, what you’ll find is that, largely, no one knows what to do with it. Daisy Fried of The New York Times praises Carson, recommends you read it, and goes on to call it a failed novel but that it “succeeds at linguistic confrontation” (whatever that means) while The Guardian goes a bit further, kind of paraphrasing the plot (because yes, there is a kind of plot) before ruminating over the title itself. Both agree that the heart of the work (because both reviewers believe poetry has such a thing) lies in Geryon (here G)’s final conversations with his mother at the end.

For the time being, though, I’d like to avoid talking about the ending, the place where we see a somewhat traditional rumination on time, mortality, mothers and sons, etc. because there are approximately 150 pages that deal with all sorts of other, in my mind more vital (and certainly more useful), thoughts, ideas, and tropes. Buckle up; this will be as silly as it is pretentious.

Let me get the kind-of plot out of the way. The book opens on G, middle-aged, having trouble coping with age, the loss of his looks, his friends, while still (sort of) tending a herd of musk oxen. He meets back up with Herakles, here Sad But Great (Sad for short) who’s deeply troubled with post-war PTSD, and they go on a kind of picaresque road-trip with the artist Ida to a glacial lake (which features a glacial rift leading toward a cavern filled with “ice bats” who live in—I kid you not—Batcatraz), and then to an autoshop / clinic, presumably for people with mental health issues. There are volcanic eruptions and riots and eventually G returns to his mother.

The plot, though, comes across as kind of meaningless. And maybe it is. Even Carson, talking through one of the characters in the book (I tried hard to find it; I really did), claims that plot is a house and poetry is the man on fire running through it. So why have it at all? Why waste time jerking us around, forcing us to re-orient ourselves again and again in different, less and less comprehensible situations, obscuring real understanding of G or Sad of Ida or 4NO, each characters who—whether haunted by the past or the rapidly coming future (4NO is a prophet of five seconds into the future)—are unable to access the present moment. Why not just write a book of poems thematically structured so that we may comfortably interrogate the man on fire?

I think that, for two reasons, the answer lies in the poem/section I provided in the epigraph. First (and probably most obvious) is that this book isn’t an interrogation of a single character; it works as dialectic (a conversation between at least two parties). Many of the poems are structured as conversations, and, section to section, character to character, what we are left with is this. Try as we might, there is no patterned similarity or concern linking these various players. They’re just, fundamentally, different. But wait Austin, I’m sure you’re thinking (because I’m thinking it too), what about the fact that none of the mains can access the present moment? That each is driven, in some way or another, by some subconscious concern, be it the past or the future? Isn’t that a pattern?

Yes. Yes it is. Sort of. However, to simply link these characters together—one obsessed with his aging body, his sexuality, his herd, another whose mind is ravaged by way, another who’s only access to the present is only seeing five seconds into the future—under such an abstract pattern is incredibly reductive. It seems that, were we being asked to drop the specifics of each concern, to generalize and lump together each character to fit our idea of coherence, what’s lost is profoundly strange and profoundly real. Yes, I do think that the pattern of similarity is important—it is, after all, what makes us culturally (maybe even ontologically) recognizable to one another, empathizable with one another—but I think that, with the jumps in plot considered against the organization of the book (which poems/sections come after each other), we’ll see a kind of freedom, an intentional strangeness that’s pointing toward itself.

Which brings me to the second reason I chose the epigraph that I did: the lines “how will you recognize each other / in a strange way.” What we’re being pointed toward, even with the goddamned > in the book’s title, is not simply Anne Carson’s I’m a super badass hijinks. Instead, it’s a statement of strange recognition, a new kind of identification that occurs beyond what we, as a culture of people, are conscious of. I’d bet dollars to donuts (because I love donuts) that the majority of you look at the title and think that looks like a file I’d save on my computer, and it is! That’s the whole story of how Carson titled the book. But beyond that, it’s a piece of information that communicates similarity and similar understandings to us despite the fact that, linguistically/grammatically/philosophically, it is meaningless and just plain strange. The surrealist picaresque plot of the book, then, the organization, the characters’ relationships with one another, the fact that this is sort of a novel, doesn’t exist to create what most of us would classically think of as coherence. After all, we all know what a novel does: It uses plot to move a theme toward resolution with characters either furthering or impeding that progress. And a poem: It’s a pattern of language that makes the incoherent cohere. Here, we have those things, but also we don’t. As much as there seems to be a plot, seems to be patterns coalescing toward an identifiable meaning, there isn’t. What we come to instead is a profound strangeness and a profound identification alike (with characters and poems and forms and genres), an experience of the unheimlich, the uncanny, a thing both twisted and recognizable, home and not. We see the human, the mythic, the literary, the poetic, the cultural, and, at the same time, we see none of it, just strangeness, some unidentifiable piece of work existing completely on its own and in a vacuum.

When I made the statement in the title that Red Doc> exists on the edge of sense, I meant that sincerely and even as a kind of celebration. This is not a conceptual poetry that can’t be read, but, at the same time, it certainly isn’t the kind of poetry or novel that you’re likely used to reading. It’s an artwork of the mind and its reality, of the dissimilarity that each of us knows to be true about ourselves and, ultimately, what it means to connect with another, to be alongside them in life, on a journey, in time when this is the case. To never escape our shit while moving forward through time. To be with another and to know nothing of them, to see their cruelty and damage and violence and insanity and their capacity to care, to feel, to empathize and identify. To “be / suspended in the lives of/ others and still not.” This is a book about being.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image source: Telegraph

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Jose Saramago’s Blindness

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

Blindness is a novel like Infinite Jest in that it has strong science-fictional traits, but many would throw out terms like counterfactual or speculative instead of going whole-hog and calling it SF. I’ll just say the main premise of the book and let you decide for yourself: In an unnamed city in an unnamed country, people are going about their lives as normal until suddenly, out of nowhere, people start going blind. There seems to be no contagion, no reasonable epidemiology to explain why this is occurring. Some people go blind, some do not. The blindness is not a lack of sight, but a complete whitewashing of your vision – all the stricken can see, all the time, is a wall of white.

The greatest SF explores what happens to society in the face of great change, and that’s exactly what Blindness is going for. Saramago takes away one tiny little thing – sight – and it completely upends the world. The first man to go blind does so at a stoplight, so when it turns green he does not move and pisses a bunch of people off. When those around him understand that he’s been struck blind, they get less angry and one even offers to drive him home. In an action that foreshadows the societal breakdown to come, this shitty samaritan then steals his car. He is the second person to go blind. The government’s response to a seeming disease that they can neither control nor understand is to freak out and force everyone affected to into an old asylum that they have repurposed to house them. A large portion of the book takes place in this asylum, and it is there that Saramago explores in depth what happens to people when they are pushed to the edge.

This seems like a rational response to people going blind.

The main characters of the novel, as much as there are main characters, are the doctor and his wife. The doctor, hilariously, is an ophthalmologist. His wife is inexplicably not affected by the disease – she pretends to be blind so as not to lose her husband to the asylum. In the first group of asylum inhabitants, this pair serves as the voice of reason and tamps down the group anxiety to manageable and sane levels. They build a tenuous society within those asylum walls, which are patrolled by soldiers who will shoot them if they attempt to leave. Nothing lasts, and everything is subject to strain and decay, so however much those first inhabitants can work together, their way of life is shattered as the epidemic builds up to full steam and the asylum is flooded with the newly blind. In the beginning, soldiers would send them food, now there is not enough. In the beginning, the inhabitants would share and work together, now gangs are forming and fighting with each other for food and, horrifyingly, women. It used to be possible to maintain some cleanliness, but with the facilities overflowing with people, the latrines overflow with waste. Blind, imprisoned, and with all agency taken from him by the authorities, the doctor keeps a stiff upper lip, but his breaking point is trying to use the bathroom:

The stench choked him. He had the impression of having stepped on some soft pulp, the excrement of someone who had missed the hole of the latrine or who had decided to relieve himself without any consideration for others. He tried to imagine what the place must look like, for him it was all white, luminous, resplendent, he had no way of knowing whether the walls and ground were white and he came to the absurd conclusion that the light and whiteness there were giving off the awful stench. We shall go mad with horror, he thought. Then he tried to clean himself but there was no paper. He ran his hand over the wall behind him, where he expected to find the rolls of toilet paper or nails, where in the absence of anything better, any old scraps of paper had been stuck up. Nothing. He felt unhappy, disconsolate, more unfortunate than he could bear, crushed there, protecting his trousers which were brushing against that disgusting floor, blind, blind, blind, and, unable to control himself, he began to weep quietly.

There’s a lot going on in this excerpt. First off, it communicates the horror and squalor of their physical situation: this character just identified shit by his sense of touch. He’s stuck in a bathroom where no one can ever hit the target because no one can see it. His sight is gone, but his smell is not, and his surroundings assault it powerfully. Secondly, it highlights how difficult and degrading the simplest tasks can become when we lose one simple thing. Sure, of course blind people cannot drive, but the frightening thing about this novel is that all these newly blind people who have not had time to adjust to their condition struggle even with wiping themselves. Thirdly, it explores the spiritual effect this lack of ability has on people. In this excerpt, we have the doctor – married, successful, in the business of confidently helping others – sitting in a shit-stained bathroom unable to take care of his most basic physical needs. His lack of control in the physical world leads directly to his loss of emotional control, which results in him weeping quietly in a bathroom.

When this is one your main nemeses in life, you are in a bad spiritual place.

This helplessness and despair eventually spreads to most of the city. The guards start falling prey to the blindness epidemic, and, in the absence of soldiers or any overarching social order, the inmates wander out of the asylum and stumble through their transformed city. Blindness demonstrates intensely and convincingly exactly how little it would take for our society to crumble. Everyone is familiar with the idea of the world ending due to violent illness, resource scarcity, or nuclear war. It does not even take that much – the world will end if filled with a bunch of perfectly healthy people who have lost the ability to see. Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Sight is humanity’s primary sense. In the way way back, it, along with bipedalism, gave us an advantage in our primal environment: we could stand taller and see farther than other animals on the plain. We no longer need to hunt for and run from other animals, but the primacy of sight still exists. Think about it: When cops are searching for a fugitive, they don’t put his scent on the APB, they put his image. Movies and television, two of the most popular forms of mass entertainment, require sight to fully enjoy. Reading is, has been, and for the foreseeable future will be the main method of information transfer in our society. Without sight, you would not be able to understand this article. When sight disappears, a big part of how we adapt to and interact with the world disappears with it.

Science fiction is an exploration of humanity in extremity. It imagines a different world and explores how we deal with it. How does a man condemned to perpetual loneliness in Moon deal? How does a man who has come unstuck in time and exposed to all the psychological awkwardness of that state in Slaughterhouse-Five deal? How do the handful of survivors of a world-wrapping biopocalypse in MaddAddam deal? Saramago crafts a beautiful and concise exploration of humanity in extremity by changing one tiny aspect of our current world. It’s not even in the realm of SF that people go blind – that happens daily. The only change Saramago makes is that it happens inexplicably, and it happens to everyone. He pulls at one small string, and the entire fabric of human society unravels. It is important to keep in mind how fragile and impermanent our way of life is, and how little it would take to completely wreck it.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.

Image sources: Wiki, Amazon

Tough Questions: What’s the Most You’ve Ever Lost on a Bet?

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Every Monday we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the Most You’ve Ever Lost on a Bet?

Rules are simple: we want to know, what’s the most you’ve ever lost… on a coin toss? Or anything, really. But that’s the line from the thing. You know, the thing?

It can be any kind of bet, but what did you put up that you can’t take back?

Alex Russell

I proposed this question this week because Vegas is on my mind. I go every year, but I am absolutely not “Vegas Guy.” It’s a rotten town that is wonderful in a very specific way, but I have a bad habit of giving back whatever I win before I leave. This trip I managed to double down and look really, really dumb as I did it at a blackjack table. It was impressive in a stupid sort of way, but that definitely could not last. I handed it all back half a day later in about five minutes. The $200-up, $200-down movement was awesome – in the actual definition of awesome. Maybe that’s not a lot of money, but it’s definitely quick.

Brent Hopkins

I am not really much of a gambler I (I am tight with money, as they say) so I don’t tend to lose anything monetary when I do choose to bet. I would say the biggest thing I have lost on a bet is my pride as a gamer, but that comes with being a blowhard and a highly competitive person.

Austin Duck

I don’t really bet money on things; I lost $10 in elementary school betting on the New England Patriots in a Super Bowl and, since then, eh. Not for me.

Jonathan May

Though not often a betting man, I am occasionally cajoled into such an enterprise, often to prove some kind of point or to hold something really lame at stake. In this case, it was a bet I actually won. The year: 1993. The place: Bulawayo Baptist Church, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. I was bet by one of the sixth graders that I couldn’t eat a lemon, peel and all. At stake was $5, a terrific sum. Ice cream danced in my eyes. So I ate the whole damn thing, there, in the fellowship hall in front of twenty or so kids. It was easily the worst decision I’ve ever made. I gained $5 that day, and later ice cream, but I gave up my third-grade dignity then. I didn’t know what a metaphor was then, but I sure do now. A lemon is a lemon is a lemon.

Andrew Findlay

I went to a Tunica casino with a wallet filled with one hundred dollars. I left that Tunica casino with a wallet.

Mike Hannemann

I’m not a betting man – never have been. I went to Las Vegas once, for a bachelor party. It was pretty standard fare, one night was spent just gambling. We all found our own game and many of us went our separate ways. I found myself at the blackjack table. After $200 lost, I had to quit. I had hit my allotted budget for gambling. Before I could leave, an older man next to me handed me a $20 chip and said he’d teach me how to play. Two hours and a ton of luck later, I was up $400. I was ecstatic. I wisely decided to leave at that point, paid the guy back with an equal chip and strode back to the hotel room. The final table I passed was Casino War. $20 a hand. I paused for only a moment. Less than 30 minutes later, I had lost all $400 and was ready to murder someone.